Shut it Down! Set them Free!

Last Friday I went back to the Karnes County Residential Center, the euphemistic name given to the for-profit prison where 500 refugee mothers and children are being held. I was there to visit my dear friend Sonia, who has been locked up in this facility for nine months with her three young children. When they first arrived at Karnes in August 2014, the littlest child, Moises, was only two and was just starting to talk. Now, he has celebrated his third birthday behind bars and talks a blue streak. When I saw him last week, it was clear that he had adapted to life in jail. He knows everyone and everyone knows him: the folks at the detention center have become his community. But he also knew that the guards were to be feared and their orders quickly obeyed, things no three-year-old should have to understand.

Karnes County Residential Center. Photo by Nancy Zuniga.

Karnes County Residential Center. Photo by Nancy Zuniga.

The two older children, ages 9 and 10, still remember life outside this prison. They remember what it is like to be free and long for this freedom. Formerly bright and energetic students, they have lost interest in their studies. In nine months, they have seen so many other families come and go, and yet they remain locked up. Their eyes now hold a hopelessness far beyond their years. Their rambunctious energy and inquisitive spirits are slowly fading away with each day that they spend behind bars. Nine months of detention have also aged their mother, deepening worry lines and bringing out dark circles under her eyes from so many sleepless nights.

Puppet at Dilley Protest on May 2, 2015.

Puppet at Dilley Protest on May 2, 2015.

The suffering that has been caused by this prolonged detention has been paid for by our tax dollars. The U.S. Senate estimates that it costs $266 per day per person to hold someone in these family detention facilities. Over nine months, that amounts to $287,280 to lock up Sonia and her three children – over $70,000 to keep a three-year-old behind bars.

Protest against for-profit detention. Photo by Families for Freedom.

Protest against for-profit detention. Photo by Families for Freedom.

However, nine months of detention has also been an incubator that has given birth to increasing organization by the detained families. Last month, these mothers launched a series of hunger strikes as part of a campaign for their release. They have worked hard to get the word out about their situation, releasing joint statements and writing letters, some of which have been put together in this brief video.

Following the lead of these courageous women, a movement to end family detention is gaining momentum across the nation. Dedicated volunteers in Southern Texas have been regularly driving miles out into the countryside to visit detained families and keep an eye on the conditions in which they are being held. During the hunger strike, many gathered outside the detention facilities in solidarity vigils or participated in a solidarity fast from around the country.

Solidarity vigil outside Karnes. Photo by RAICES.

Solidarity vigil outside Karnes. Photo by RAICES.

On Saturday, May 2, these efforts gained new momentum at a protest, which brought together over 700 people from all over Texas as well as from New York, Kentucky, Iowa, New Mexico, and California. We gathered in the tiny town of Dilley, TX (population 3,624) and marched two miles in the heat and sun to nearby detention facility. Just opened in November of 2014, this facility has beds for 2,400 mothers and children, making it the largest immigration detention center in the nation. In the six months since it opened, locking up families at this detention center has generated $21 million in income for Corrections Corporation of America, the private for-profit prison corporation that runs the facility.

Starting the march to Dilley detention center. Photo by Texans United for Families.

Starting the march to Dilley detention center. Photo by Texans United for Families.

As we gathered in the park at the center of Dilley, preparing to set off on the march, the air was electric with energy. Son jarocho musicians played resistance music, groups unfurled banners and passed out signs, children ran from group to group caught up in the excitement of the day. Coming together in solidarity and struggle energized us all, and we chanted slogans in Spanish and English all the way to the detention center. With each step, I felt us getting closer to the day when Sonia and her children will get to go free. (Click here for more images and video from the protest).

On the march to Dilley detention center. Photo by Texans United for Families.

On the march to Dilley detention center. Photo by Texans United for Families.

The day before, after I had finished visiting Sonia and was waiting outside Karnes for others in my group to finish their visits, I looked up to see a young woman and a little boy walk out of the doors of the detention center. She had tears in her eyes and he looked stunned and slightly frightened. It turned out that they had just been released after two months in detention and needed to wait a few hours for their ride to arrive. To fill the time, we decided to drive with them to a nearby park. As soon as he climbed out of the car, the little boy’s face lit up. He took off running across the grass to the playground, and for the next 45 minutes he didn’t stop. He climbed and went down the slide and ran to the swings and then back to the monkey bars, all the while with a huge smile across his face.

On the march to Dilley detention center. Photo by Texans United for Families.

On the march to Dilley detention center. Photo by Texans United for Families.

Today, I am hopeful that soon Sonia’s children will be running free just like this little boy. In recent months, federal judges have issued two separate rulings that undermine the practice of family detention. The first, in February, ruled that the federal government cannot use family detention as a strategy for deterring future migration. The ruling “made clear that the government cannot deprive individuals of their liberty merely to send a message to others”. The second decision, issued on Friday, April 24, ruled that the policy of family detention violates a court settlement resulting from a case in the 1980’s (Flores vs. Holder). This settlement states that Immigration cannot hold migrant children cannot in secured (ie: locked) and unlicensed facilities. Detention centers like Dilley and Karnes constitute just such secure and unlicensed facilities and are thus in violation of the settlement. As a result of these rulings, DHS secretary Jeh Johnson announced on April 28 that the administration is reconsidering the policy of family detention.

To make sure that this reconsideration results in the release of all detained families, we need to keep speaking out loudly and clearly, calling for an unequivocal end to family detention, just as one of the chants we shouted on the march: “Shut it down! Set them free!” Below is a list of actions you can take in this struggle, ranging from signing petitions, to donating money, to organizing lobbying efforts.

Bracelet given to me by Sonia.

Bracelet given to me by Sonia.

At the end of our visit, Sonia gave me a bracelet she had made for me. I immediately put it on, and will keep it on my wrist until she and her children are free, along with all other detained families. Feeling the bracelet against my skin is a reminder that keeps her and her children close to me and motivates me to continue in this struggle for justice and freedom.

Things you can do to end family detention:

  1. Join a fast this Monday for Mother’s day, in solidarity with all detained mothers. Click here and scroll down to pledge to join the fast.
  2. Sign this online petition to end family detention.
  3. Send a letter to President Obama urging him to end family detention.
  4. Spread the word about this campaign on social media.
  5. Set up a film screening of the new documentary “No Sanctuary” in your town to help raise awareness about family detention.
  6. Raise money for a fund that helps break families out of detention by paying their bonds.
  7. Download this great resource packet from the Interfaith Immigration Coalition for conversation starters and more ideas of how to take action.
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